Timothy Allen Ferrell is the kind of person officials and advocates argue about.
Despite a long history of trauma – born with drugs in her system from a 15-year-old mother, then into foster care, heroin and methamphetamine use, and drug-related criminal convictions – Ferrell insists that roaming is his choice.
âBeing in a house is stasis, you’re stuck there,â says Ferrell, 42, who uses the street name Damian. “I’m leaving the apartments.”
Ferrell is a Native American: a registered member of the Yakama Nation who lives in a tent outside the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in southeast Portland. And he explicitly links his homelessness to his heritage.
He remembers the words of his great-grandmother Ida Nason, an elder from Wenatchi featured in a 1986 Washington University documentary: âYou have the right to wander, by blood, by law. “
Other Native Americans in Portland tell a different story: They are homeless not by choice, but because they have been cut off from help from their tribes and government agencies.
Ferrell is one of 424 homeless Native Americans in Multnomah County this year. This represents 10 percent of the homeless in the county, an extremely disproportionate number. (Native Americans make up only 2.5% of the county’s population.)
Overall, people of color made up 40.5% of the number this year, slightly more than in 2015. But Native Americans are now homeless at a rate that far exceeds any other racial or ethnic group in Portland.
Why is that?
Native American Youth and Family Center Executive Director Paul Lumley highlights the social ills that have long plagued Indigenous people. But he also says these scourges are compounded by geography: Native Americans who move from reservations to live in cities are separated from a social safety net and government money that often goes through tribal leaders.
âNo tribe is going to come to the aid of anyone in the urban area,â says Lumley. (Officials from the Siletz, Grand Ronde and Warm Springs tribes did not respond to calls for comment.)
Lumley knows a thing or two about Indigenous homelessness. A Yakama citizen like Ferrell, he was homeless as a teenager, “living on the Columbia River fishing for a living [and] doesn’t do a very good job. “
He had to go to an interview with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, he recalls, and “showered” in a resting sink along the way.
âI was really aware of the smell I smelled when I walked in, because I was coming from the river,â he laughs. He doesn’t laugh when he mentions that he has been denied basic services by the tribe and the state.
It’s a story picked up by Ferrell’s friend, Susan McIntire, registered in Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa who goes through Oracle. McIntire lives in a Chevrolet Astro van decorated with teddy bears and art supplies.
âYou don’t get the resources or the help from the different Indian agencies,â she said. “Even on the reservations, there is no accommodation there.”
For her, as for Lumley, service was scarce when she needed it most. “When I was in [a] bad wreck in ’82 and I needed a wheelchair, even the native groups couldn’t find me a wheelchair, âshe says. âNot the state, not the county, not anyone.
Now McIntire, 64, is surviving on Social Security and an annual $ 500 “senior’s check” from his tribe, “if they decide not to spend it on anything else.” (For his part, Ferrell receives a check from the Yakama for $ 127 a month, he says.)
Officials at the joint city-county office of homelessness services hope to do something to reduce the number of Native Americans, as they did when they prioritized blacks after the 2015 tally, which revealed that 24% of homeless people at the time were African American. . (In two years, they lowered that number to 16%.) On July 14, the office issued a notice saying it would make up to $ 1.9 million available to programs that help reduce the number. of Native American itineraries.
Outside of St. Francis Church, Ferrell and McIntire are watching each other and were recently encouraged by the installation of a new Portland Loo. But they are still struggling. Ferrell’s Yakama Tribal ID card is not accepted by local businesses and some government agencies, and McIntire’s dog Buddy has been removed by county animal services.
Ferrell’s short-term plan involves the Native American Rehabilitation Association, which operates the only Native American dental clinic in the metro area.
âVery soon, I will contact NARA,â he said. “I need teeth.”
Down and Out in Portland, Oregon is a weekly column that answers the city’s most pressing questions about homelessness by bringing them to the people who know the problem best: those who live on the streets. Look for a new weekly payment throughout the summer.